Final four built for NHL's new rules
The conference finals are set, and although some of you might be skeptical about the matchups, believe me when I say they will be fun to watch.
Right now, I am going with the Hurricanes and Oilers in the Stanley Cup finals. You have to have at least one Canadian team playing for the Cup!
If there are two teams built for the new rules, they're Buffalo and Carolina. In the new NHL, skating is the most important thing, and there isn't a bad skater on either of these Eastern Conference finals teams. I think other teams could learn from these two teams -- the Sabres and Hurricanes saw the future and adjusted accordingly.
I love the way Hurricanes rookie goalie Cam Ward responded in Game 5 against the Devils. After Carolina got blown out in Game 4, Ward and the team bounced back to close out the series. Eric Staal is also a tremendous player, and Rod Brind'Amour is still the overall key. He is the heart and soul of the team. The Canes feed off his work ethic.
The two players who will be so important for Buffalo are Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. Whenever the Sabres need a big play, when they need someone to shift the momentum of the game, Briere and Drury are there. Defensively, Jay McKee has been solid for Buffalo. When players watch McKee give up his body to block 40 shots so far in the playoffs, it's inspiring for them. It gives them confidence.
The two coaches in this series -- Buffalo's Lindy Ruff and Carolina's Peter Laviolette -- also have done a great job. If you watch them, they are both calm. They generally are not yellers or screamers. When their respective teams get a bad penalty, you don't see either coach jumping on the bench and yelling -- you don't have to be yelling and screaming all the time to be a good coach. These two coaches never panic, and that rubs off on their players.
We also have to mention the Edmonton Oilers. What a comeback against the Sharks to reach the Western Conference finals. The Oilers play with such passion. That's why I love watching them so much. Players are walking around with no teeth; players are blocking shots; players are beating their opponent to the puck.
This team also never quits. Never. In Game 3 versus the Sharks, the Oilers came back to force OT and win in triple OT. They erased a 3-1 deficit to win Game 4. They never collapsed when San Jose put the pressure on at home in Game 5. Then, Dwayne Roloson notched a shutout win in Game 6 to clinch the series.
The Oilers aren't afraid to battle, and they will wear you down. I can see them beating the Mighty Ducks. This series is another "new NHL" special.
On the flip side, San Jose was the latest victim of Edmonton's pressure-filled game.
The Sharks were up 2-0 in the series and lost four straight to the Oilers. The difference? Special teams. San Jose's power play disappeared in the second round. San Jose had everything going its way in Games 3, 4 and 5, yet couldn't capitalize. You only get so many chances to close the deal, and the Sharks were unable to do that.
The New Jersey Devils also went out on a sour note. I believe the reason for that was the team having so much time off between rounds. Long layoffs are never good in the postseason. Also, Carolina did a great job of shutting down New Jersey's most effective line, the Patrik Elias-Scott Gomez-Brian Gionta line.
Anaheim is going to be in the same boat with the long layover. The Ducks' coaching staff is going to have to make sure the team is ready.
What happened to the Ottawa Senators? A team with that much talent wound up losing three games at home?
Look at the other teams left in the playoffs. All their best players are playing great: Chris Pronger and Michael Peca in Edmonton, Brind'Amour and Staal in Carolina, Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim, and Drury and Briere in Buffalo.
This wasn't the case with the Senators. In the past, they blamed Jacques Martin and Patrick Lalime. This past week, the whole Dominik Hasek story line was a total distraction. You can't tell the media, as some players did, that you wanted Hasek to play. It was bad for Ray Emery to see and hear that. And you can't say Emery lost the series for the Sens. He was fine.
Now? Basically, I think there is something missing in the Ottawa dressing room. They don't have a Ryan Smyth or Rod Brind'Amour type player there. Without those intangibles, it's hard to win.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.
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